A Democratic councilman from Caldwell has touched the third rail of Essex County politics, criticizing the expansion of the Turtle Back Zoo – the crown jewel of fellow Democrat Joseph DiVincenzo’s tenure as county executive.
Jonathan Lace wants to put a stop to a proposed $8 million Amphitheater, saying that Gov. Phil Murphy’s suspension of state aid and the elimination of federal property tax deductions have turned the amphitheater into a luxury.
DiVincenzo ripped Lace apart in a private letter obtained by the New Jersey Globe, suggesting that the councilman was trying to deflect criticism for Caldwell’s recent tax increase.
“If Caldwell has a difficult time balancing its budget and is proposing a 4.8% tax increase, tax responsibility for the decisions you make,” DiVincenzo told Lace. “Don’t cloak your shortcomings by casting dispersions at Essex County.”
The zoo is economically self-sufficient, boosting annual revenues in excess $11 million and annual attendance of more than 900,000. When DiVincenzo took office in 2003, zoo revenues were about $660,000 and attendance was around 200,000.
DiVincenzo educated Lace about the economics of the Turtle Back Zoo, noting that the “vast majority of the improvements …has been funded with grants, contributions and donations.”
“This appropriation has no impact on property taxes,” DiVincenzo said, noting that the amphitheater is being paid for by a special appropriation made possible by Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Last year, DiVincenzo announced that after sixteen years of trying, Essex had been awarded a Aaa bond rating for the first time in county history. Less than three months later, he was re-elected to a fifth term as county executive with 81% of the vote and won by the biggest plurality since the office was created in 1978.
“Over the last eight years, the average county tax increase has been 1.5%, which is well below the 2% property tax cap imposed by the state,” said DiVincenzo. “Our 2019 budget was introduced with just a 0.5% increase.”
Lace posted his letter to DiVincenzo on his Facebook page.
DiVincenzo said Lace should have contacted him directly with his questions about the amphitheater.
“You posted a letter on your Facebook page, which I do not follow, did not tag me in your post and did not fax or e-mail the letter,” said DiVincenzo, who said he received the August 7 letter five days later. “It was evident that you wanted to grandstand to the public.”
Lace, who touched the third rail of local government too by proposing an elimination of municipal leaf cleanup, is up for re-election in 2020.DiVincenzo Lace